Toya S. - Class of 2019

Working with and Citing Sources

Toya S. - Class of 2019

Being able to research a topic and incorporate that research into one’s own thinking and writing are fundamental critical thinking skills. The purpose of the research assignment is not simply to have students learn new material but to have them construct their own perspectives and arguments based on a critical assessment of the evidence available. Students working on such projects have the opportunity to participate, through their writing, with experts and scholars in the formation of knowledge about real, unresolved issues within the field being studied. National University makes a variety of research tools available to students through the Library and the Internet. Instruction in the use of these tools is available through the Library. Many degree programs also include courses intended to introduce students to the research conventions and methods particular to that field. The following paragraphs address two questions which often arise from students and instructors in courses where such research projects are required. One of these questions, how to cite sources, is a technical one; the other, how to use sources, is more complicated.

How to Cite Sources

National University does not require instructors or students to adhere to any particular citation format. Each instructor must decide which format to require in his or her class. Because different disciplines (and often different publications within the same discipline) use different citation formats, and because those formats frequently change from year to year, instructors are encouraged to ask students to use whatever format or formats are commonly used in publications in that field. The Little, Brown Essential Handbook for Writers has brief sections illustrating how to use several different citation formats, including APA and MLA.


The importance of citing all sources should be strongly emphasized. Failure to carefully cite all sources, whether quoted, paraphrased, or relied on in any way, and whether done intentionally or not, is plagiarism and can be grounds for serious disciplinary action, ranging from failing a particular assignment to dismissal from the University. Don’t assume students understand what plagiarism is; students often plagiarize more or less unintentionally. Be sure to clearly explain what sorts of sources and citation formats you expect them to use in their writing. How to respond to suspected plagiarism is discussed in more detail below.

How to Use Sources

While students frequently ask how to cite sources, they often do not appreciate the importance or the difficulty of using sources in their writing. Students often see their papers as simply reports of what other, usually more expert writers have written before them. They often feel intimidated by their sources and too often rely on these sources uncritically. By thus deferring to their sources, students may let these “experts” essentially take over what should be the student’s paper.

To address these misunderstandings, remind students that their writing is theirs. Most (arguably all) university writing requires the student to stake out his or her own position or perspective on the questions at issue. While these positions will often coincide with those of the experts, students should not replace their own words with those of other authors, even if those authors are more expert than the student. Source material must be digested by the student and used in building a new piece of writing that reflects the student’s understanding of or opinion on the material. Sources should be used to support the student’s argument by providing evidence and/or a concurring expert opinion, or to represent ideas to which the student will respond.

A few simple guidelines can help students ensure that sources play their proper role:

  • Always state clearly in the paper what role each source is playing in the student’s argument: e.g., a supporting example, a corroborating expert opinion, an opposing argument, etc. Clearly explain to the reader what conclusion is to be drawn from the evidence you present; don’t assume the source “speaks for itself.”
  • To this end, try whenever possible to place the quote or paraphrase within one of your sentences. This way, the quoted or paraphrased passage is always subordinated to the point you are trying to make.
  • Make quotes or paraphrases as short as possible; use only what is essential to making the argument.

Online Sources

The ease and accessibility of the Internet and the World Wide Web make it a popular and often very useful research tool for students. While the Internet is becoming a better resource all the time, several cautions are still in order, and because students may be tempted to rely too heavily on this resource, it is a good idea to remind them of its limitations and to encourage them to regard sources found on the Web with particular critical scrutiny. Remind your students that:

  • There is no librarian to ensure that the material collected online is authoritative or complete. If you want access to most of what has been written on any particular subject, go to a library.
  • Generally speaking, material on the Web is not scrutinized by an editor for quality or authority. Almost all legitimate research and reporting is still published in print, though some of it is reproduced online.

While good material can, of course, be found online, students should know that the Web is (at present) should be considered an adjunct to, but no substitute for, a university library. Students should be encouraged to use the Internet to search library catalogs and the many excellent databases which the National University Library provides online.